While the opinions expressed by theatre critics are always different, the five or six reviews that I read on major productions of plays, operas and ballets nevertheless head in the same general direction. How delightful it was, therefore, to read Debra Craine in The Sunday Times and Luke Jennings in The Observer on the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet's Coppélia!
Neither is enamoured of Roland Petit's version:
…his chic but empty-headed 1975 French rewrite is so uninvolving… Petit's Coppélia gives short shrift to plot and even shorter shrift to characterisation.
says Craine. And Jennings:
It's all intended to be very charming and effervescent, but Petit's choreography lacks élan and soon becomes tiresomely repetitive.
But on the interpreters they beg to differ. Craine on the Stanislavsky's Swanhilda wrote,
Kristina Shapran was strange casting as the first-night Swanilda. Her technique was decidedly wobbly, with rubbery legs and a weird tendency to approach each step as if it she hadn't quite mastered it. And her acting was so bland that it seemed like an afterthought.
Whereas Jennings was taken by her potential,
Slender, dark-haired Shapran, if sometimes lacking in technical finesse, is a very beguiling and pretty heroine, but the brittle choreography does her few favours. Nor does Polunin, whose acting is perfunctory at best, and who partners her with little care and no tenderness. But there's a determined set to Shapran's chin, and we will certainly be seeing more of her.
And here start his doubts about Polunin – “Let's face it, most of the first-night audience was drawn by the chance to see Polunin” says Craine – and Jennings continues,
Of Polunin, who knows? Applause greets his solos, which contain their share of pyrotechnics. Flying jetés, spring-heeled tours en l'air, effortless-seeming double assemblés and sauts de basque. But much of it is, by his own standards, rough around the edges. Preparations are approximate, pirouettes snatched and off-centre, landings not quite even. The poetry and beautiful precision of which he is capable are not in evidence here.
“It's just to show off,” Polunin has said of ballets like Coppélia. “You play stupid and playful.” And that's exactly what this looks like – a throwaway performance… But given his glorious talent – he is, without question, the most naturally gifted male ballet dancer of his generation – his jaded attitude and cynical attitudinising are dispiriting.
Franz is a jolly rogue, a young man who thinks nothing of making goo-goo eyes at another woman (well, he doesn't know that Coppélia is really a lifeless doll) while being engaged to Swanilda. Polunin made him irresistible, both in his beautifully formed dancing — thrilling jumps, silken pirouettes, heavenly positions — and the mesmerising appeal of his comedy, so cocky and assured..
So here's the real moment to compare and contrast. This is not about so-and-so being ‘enchanting' or what's-her-name being ‘believable', this is about technique:
…his beautifully formed dancing — thrilling jumps, silken pirouettes, heavenly positions. – Debra Craine
…rough around the edges. Preparations are approximate, pirouettes snatched and off-centre, landings not quite even. – Luke Jennings
The strange thing is that both critics have had ballet training and know about technique, so how to explain this? Craine asphyxiated by the testerone wafting off the stage? Jennings trying to knock the arrogance out of the 23-year-old who dared say “being a ballet dancer isn't cool”? No, they are both much too seasoned and professional for that. But I'd damn like to see a video.
The Oxford Dictionary of Dance by Debra Craine and The Guardian's Judith Mackrell
The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet by Luke Jennings and ex-principal of the Royal Ballet Deborah Bull
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.